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December 08, 2005

How to make an unerotic film about The Windmill: Mrs Henderson Presents - Stephen Frears

Posted by Richard D. North

Mrs Henderson Presents
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench
certificate 12A, 2005

Mrs Henderson Presents has simply failed to capture the eroticism of the era it deals with, feels Richard D. North.

Can this really be the same director as gave us down-and-dirty London and its spunky immigrants (Dirty Pretty Things, 2004)? The same person who brought us the hardest-edge of a criminal mother's love (The Grifters, 1991)? Is this the man who brought us eroticism and wickedness (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988)? Here is a talent which clearly understands sex, cities, and getting a living. He knows about the illicit, and hankerings are his meat and drink. The quirky corners of the human spirit are his metier. Instead, he gives us this confection which would be Calendar Girls (2003) meets Pennies from Heaven (BBC1, 1978) if it were a bit more successful than it is.

There are good things here. Judi Dench almost gets into third gear, and her furs and frocks are simply gorgeous. Will Young sings beautifully, and his All the Things That You Are is beautifully done. There is a touching rowing boat on the Thames (though, typically of this lazy effort, it is left unmoored at the water's edge when the action moves back to Mrs Henderson's gleaming Rolls). Mrs Henderson is nicely Neanderthal in her social attitudes: she is sure Mr Van Damm is Jewish, which is the kind of thing she can rather thrill to, now she has embraced "The Showbusiness", as she sweetly called it, as she might have referred to a "bus called the Number 73", if she had taken any interest in them at all. She wants the theatre to be called after its street, on the basis that such things help "one's driver". But she notes that Van Damm is conventional: "You have lived such a narrow life", she declaims, more in sorrow than snobbery.

There's only one real performance in this effort: Dench gets all the work. Hoskins' Van Damm tells us nothing about the man. His diction hovers in a no-man's land. Is he actually Jewish (or even Jewish)? Dutch? Upper-crust? Arriviste? Creative? Couldn't he be just the tiniest bit smutty, like the rest of us? Kelly Reilly, as one of the famed Windmill girls, is very nearly allowed a part, and makes the best of a character nearly as immovable as her poses.

One of the fallback tropes of British films is posh-bashing. Remember poor Geraldine ("Bitty") James in Calendar Girls, the well-spoken, stuck-up woman who had to oppose The People's bosom-baring, in order to be able to eat her words and prejudices later. It passed for dramatic tension in what was otherwise a charming meander. In Mrs Henderson, we have a stuffed-shirt Lord Chamberlain, the nation's censor, who is wooed by Mrs Henderson at a sort of Indian-ised Field of the Cloth of Gold in the lee of Buckingham Palace. Lord Cromer naturally has to go back-stage at the nude show he has allowed, and Lordy blunders into the dressing room of the naked lovelies, whose bits are wobbling now. All this would be so-so and ho-hum, but there is a big set-piece in the film's back-end which is properly unforgivable. The powers-that-be have to shut the show (they thought congregating crowds might lead to deaths in the Blitz, swine that they were). A crowd gathers, so that Judi can give us her Mrs Henderson giving us her Elizabeth I giving us her "I have the body of a weak and feeble woman" speech. Lord Cromer of course sees the light.

The big difficulty is that the Windmill was about sex, and sex is a funny business when it isn't a peculiar one. The Windmill was not, until the post-war period, if then, seamy. Poor Mr Madeley on the indispensable Richard and Judy Show (Channel 4), called the Windmill "notorious", and yet the important thing is that it wasn't. Nor were the pre-war British especially repressed. It wasn't, as the standard case has it, a matter of our being squeamish until the GI's came along and showed our girls how to do it, because we could neither show nor tell. Philip Larkin was wrong about when sex got invented. So Frears has a fascinating sociological scene, and fails it. His film is based on the fact that seeing immobile nudes was exciting. He himself has said he found dealing with the subject "titillating". But there is no present titillation, or the evocation of titillations past, here.

The problem is that there was much more eroticism about then. Any male over the age of fifty-five can recall the charge that Titbits or Fiesta gave him. The luckier few will remember sending away for Harrison Marks catalogues. I don't think we thought sex was "dirty", or "saucy". We did think that, in Paris, things were different. The sight of a woman in a beret was enough to set us off. Somehow, sex was either domestic or commercial, and the latter was regarded as sordid. Now, of course, sex is everywhere, and its being commercial is uncontroversial. Then, we knew all about how sexy suggestive clothing could be; now, one yearns for the eroticism of a well-turned ankle barely-imagined-at. Then, the magazine Health and Efficiency showed us that even very wholesome and cheery pictures of women could be highly-charged. It was, simply a more modest time, in which much more was left to our imaginations, which made them run wild.

Perhaps it comes to this: no-one can recreate the excitement that must have attended the first, medieval, sight of a rose window in a cathedral: our modern eyes have simply been glutted with images and light.

Those are some of the reasons why it is so hard to fight our way back to the excitement which the Windmill's nudes created.

Mrs Henderson Presents hasn't taken us to the erotically-charged era it deals with, and it hasn't erotically-charged us. That kind of work has been left to the Marks and Spencer Christmas ad, with its homage to the Chanel ad, itself an homage by its maker Baz Lurhmann to his own windmill, Moulin Rouge. It comes to a pretty pass when M and S make hornier material than Stephen Frears.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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